The past returns

The rise of the racist right and the behaviour of some of our keepers of law and order as witnessed in television footage from Sydney and Melbourne leads me to wonder into what abyss my beloved country is sliding. What is perhaps worse, is the encouragement this regression to a dark past is receiving from many of our elected representatives. The aggression towards two Afghani women recently displayed by two Sydney policemen bought my first real introduction to racism flooding back.

I was eight years old that morning in mid-1949 when Mum, Kerry, 4, Dan, 2, and I boarded the regular MacRobertson Miller* flight from Perth’s Guildford Aerodrome to Derby via just about everywhere on the way. Under normal circumstances it would have taken a full day; back then, flights going north carried newspapers, mail and some supplies, not only to the then very small towns on the route, but also to some of the remote stations. But as things turned out the flight was to be anything but normal and I would again find myself wondering just what made some adults tick.

Just boarding the Douglas DC-3† was an adventure in itself. We’d been booked to fly to Derby a couple of weeks before, but Mum had come down with something and we had to cancel. Just as well, that plane had crashed just after take-off, killing everyone on board. Kerry and Dan were too young to be aware of it, and though I’d read of the tragedy in the West Australian, mortality wasn’t yet on my radar. It wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate what my poor mother – edgy at the best of times – must have gone through during that trip and the one after.

I have no clear recollection of how many were on board the flight, though I do remember there was a crew of three: two pilots and a “hostess”, as female flight attendants were known in those less enlightened days. All but one of our fellow passengers are a fuzzy memory, but I can see the exception as clearly as if it were yesterday. An archetypal Pom dressed in Bombay Bloomers (long, baggy shorts all same British Raj), a white shirt and tie and, horror of horrors, long socks and sandals, all topped off by a large straw hat. He completed the stereotype by loudly proclaiming in a BBC accent that he was “travelling to Darby”, something he continued to do until we parted ways, no matter how often he was told: “It’s Derby, mate.”

Along with the human cabin cargo, much of the centre aisle was taken up by lengths of building lumber and a few rolls of chook wire through which the flight attendant had to navigate, and part of the space between the front seats and the cockpit held newspapers and other odds and ends. The wire featured in later events.

We must have made a stop at Carnarvon, but it doesn’t register in my memory, overshadowed perhaps by the events surrounding the next one, which has never faded, the colours, the sounds, sight and scenery remaining as vivid as ever they were. The plane circled over the claypan serving as a landing strip on a station‡ inland from Exmouth Gulf – Madman’s Corner as it was once known – and came in to land. The DC-3 slowed very quickly and then stopped almost dead as the wheels began to sink into the mud beneath the claypan’s harder surface. The pilot killed the engines, we all disembarked and it was obvious that the flight wouldn’t be resuming any time soon, the wheels were already half submerged. It was already hot and the passengers stood in the shade of a wing as the pilots assessed our predicament and the Pom loudly complained about everything to anyone who would listen.

One of the pilots quietly told Mum that they’d got Port Hedland on the radio and the airline would be sending a small, lighter aircraft to pick our family up. It’d take a few hours, he said, but she wouldn’t have to worry about feeding us and we’d be sleeping in a bed that night.

We hadn’t been on the ground all that long, when the station boss, The Missus, a taut, wiry woman in moleskins and a checked shirt, and two Aboriginal stockmen approached on horseback, one of them leading a packhorse. It had obviously been a struggle to reach the plane; the horses were coated in mud up to their bellies and their riders’ trousers were caked with the stuff. I learned later that the Missus told us there’d been a big storm through a couple of days before and the homestead radio had been knocked out, making it impossible to contact the airline and cancel the scheduled stop.

The Aboriginal men, directed by the Missus, began digging the wheels out, and after an hour or so we all retreated to a safe distance while the pilot attempted to get the plane to move forward, engines roaring.

This was great stuff as far as I was concerned. Mud flying everywhere, the occasional not-so-indiscreet curse and the stockmen fighting to restrain the very worried horses, but the plane remained well and truly stuck.

By now things were getting a bit tense. It was getting very hot, Kerry and Dan were intermittently crying and needing drinks or food, and a couple of the passengers, the Pom included, were getting more than a little aggressive with their questions and seemed to be looking for someone to blame for our predicament. As for the stockmen, they were doing what Aboriginals always do when there’s white-fellers’ business going on; sitting quietly in the shade of the aircraft’s nose while the pilots discussed the next move.

The lumber and rolls of wire netting were dragged from the plane, and the stockmen dug a long, broad, upward sloping trench from the wheels out past the nose and laid the netting and lumber on its floor. Again, we all stepped well back, the pilot again climbed into the cockpit, the engines roared and the aircraft began to crawl forward. It managed a few metres until the wheels hit another soft patch and sank again, taking the netting and lumber with them. That was it. The pilots decided that enough was enough; everyone was exhausted and they may have been worried that any further attempts might damage the aircraft. It was now late afternoon and stinking hot. The passengers and crew gathered in the shade of a wing with the Missus while the stockmen, coated in mud from head to foot and no doubt absolutely spent, squatted in the shade of the nose.

The hostess announced that she’d go into the plane’s galley to organise sandwiches and drinks for everyone and Mum went with her to lend a hand. They handed them around on trays to the passengers and then the hostess, in hindsight probably a young, city girl, went to take a tray to the stockmen. Well! That. Was. It. The boss woman stood in front of her, grabbed the tray from her hands and – I can still hear every word – spat: “Don’t you dare try to feed those boys! They can wait ’til they get back to the blacks’ camp.”

Mum wouldn’t have been much older than the hostess, she’d had us all young, but she waded in. “You lousy so-and-so! Give me that tray. I’m not going to take them over to those poor MEN now,” she hissed, “because I know they’ll be too embarrassed to eat them. But don’t you come anywhere near me or the kids while we’re still here.” And she ushered us closer to the plane. The thoroughly embarrassed flight attendant had burst into tears.

“Why was she like that Mum?” I asked later. But deep down I knew. Grampa George had once warned me against judging people by their skin colour and I had heard the taunts aimed at some of my relatives. When I was much older I understood why Mum would offer a cuppa and sandwiches to the Clothes Prop Man, though as a youngster I thought it was just friendliness.

Later that day, an Avro-Anson arrived to take Mum and us kids on to Port Hedland where we’d spend the night before taking a plane to Derby then the boat trip on Yampi Lass II to Cockatoo Island, the place that shaped my life for both better and worse. But that’s another story.

* MacRobertson Miller Aviation was once a household name in Western Australia, as was MacRobertson’s chocolate, made at a factory founded by one of the partners in the airline, MacPherson Robertson. The airline’s logo was in the same florid script as that used for the chocolate.

The Douglas DC-3 was a popular aircraft that featured prominently in early commercial air travel. Its military equivalent was the almost ubiquitous Dakota, known to the ground troops in the WWII Pacific campaigns as the “Biscuit Bomber”. They flew countless missions parachuting supplies to allied troops in Papua and other South Pacific islands.

I haven’t mentioned the name of the station for two main reasons. First, though I’m pretty sure my memory is accurate on that score, I would need to be absolutely sure. Second, and this is tied to the first reason, I would hate anyone still living to recognise a loved relative in my description of the station Missus. And remember, they were greatly different times. Having said that, with our country under a conservative government led by a fundamentalist Christian, some of the worst aspects of that era seem to be creeping back again.

Redemption at Silver Gull Creek

Almost from the day I first met him, when he returned from his nearly five years in the army during WWII, my relationship with Dad was a troubled one. As far back as I can remember, only once did we have a moment of togetherness, so rare that it’s still clear in my mind. But though there may be no excuses for his attitude to his family, there were reasons, and as I came to appreciate them my attitude softened.

Norm Povah in his teens c. 1930s. Like many young men of his time, he took to to professional boxing as a way
of earning money during the Great Depression. An admirer of the great US boxer Jack Johnson,
he fought under the name Norm Johnson

Young enough to be almost of another generation, my youngest brother, who along with my littlest sister missed the tempestuous earlier days of our family life, helped me forgive him and find some measure of peace in that part of me that always craved parental affection. Rest easy, Norm. You were loved by a lot of people and I learned to love you before you died. I’m glad I didn’t become you but I recognised enough of you in me early enough in life to escape.

I’ve told you a bit about Cockatoo Island and I’ve also mentioned Alf Brown, the Torres Strait man from Thursday Island and now you’ve heard a bit about my Dad. All these figure in what I’m about to tell you today, along with another protagonist – a female barramundi almost as big as I was – who didn’t want to be in this story at all but who provided source material for a valuable lesson that, when later in life I came to understand it, shaped my relationships with all children and helped my youngest son become the wonderful person that he is.

Cockatoo Island had very little permanent fresh water and to fill the big storage tanks up on the hill, supplies were brought by barge from Silver Gull Creek. This water barge was towed by Yampi Lass II and what with the speed of the tow, the giant tides – nearly 40 feet – and the time needed to pump the water, it involved a two-day trip about once every few weeks or thereabouts, depending on the season.

Yampi Lass II and the water barge (just visible at left). She is waiting for the tide to come in before continuing her journey. Perhaps this was taken on a side excursion to shoot a “wild” bullock on the mainland during a trip to Silver Gull Creek.

So, this one time I’m talking about, I’d had a pretty full-on blue with the Old Man and things in the house were pretty much on the toe. I’d stayed away overnight, in the little patch of sandy hillocks by the lagoon, and of course on an island that size there was no hiding the fact that things were a bit crook in the Povah household.

Two-Ton Tony, a mate of Dad’s and the man who gave me his first edition copy of Tarzan Of The Apes to read, suggested that if I wanted to go over to Silver Gull on the boat, he’d fix it up with Norm and Tas, the skipper and a good mate of both men. No sooner said than done. All set. I could go over on my Pat and not, as was usual, as part of a picnic excursion. You beaut!

The Central Business District of Cockatoo Island, almost at sea level and very narrow. There was a Police Station, bakery, butcher shop, Post Office and two-room school. There was a level area with a large screen on which films were shown once a fortnight. We all brought pillows and cushions to sit and/or sleep on. During king tides we could throw rocks at tiger sharks from the “road”.

Silver Gull was a magical spot, its mouth hidden among the mangroves, crocodiles making its banks exciting and its tide-torn, muddy little estuary promising the attention of voracious sharks and giant stingrays to anyone foolish enough to swim there. I suspected, too, that it’d probably be a good spot to hook a barramundi to cook up for tucker so I dipped into my bag.

The Boys who lived in Steinbeck’s flop-house had learned the same lesson as I had: anyone who went abroad in the land without salt and pepper and – along the West Australian coast at least – fishing gear was a dead-set mug. No-one ever went anywhere without Wax Vesta matches and a line. The lines were of green linen cord about as thick as number 12 fencing wire and wrapped around a flat piece of wood, the hooks and sinkers of a size to match. You needed weight to hold the line in the tidal rip and anything that wouldn’t bite on a big hook was bait – with the exception of garfish, long Tom and yellowtail.

In the absence of live bait we used whatever was handy, especially anything light-colored: tinned cheese (bait was about all it was good for), peanuts with the red skin rubbed off, white rag dipped in anything oily, a piece cut from a powdered-milk tin and twisted to turn in the current; you could catch fish by just thinking about it back then.

Back to my story. I’d just thrown the line in when Alf came up to me. “Sorry to tell yer this son,” he said dolefully, “knowing all yer worry about ’ome an’ all. But you won’t ketch nothin’ ’ere. Water’s all wrong.”

Scowling at the spot where my line met the water, I ignored him as best I could; adults, even Alf, weren’t in my good books just then. He’d hardly left my side when – bang! –a big barra hit the hook and, feeling the resistance; hurled herself out of the water. I let out a yell and wrapped a bit of line around a deck stanchion – I knew I wouldn’t be able to hang on just with my hands. Nobody came near me while I struggled with her, and I pulled and belayed, pulled and belayed, hoping like hell that something bigger wouldn’t take a lump out of her till she was tired enough to land.

When at last she was on deck, I stood looking at the brilliant silver body with that mixture of triumph and guilt that to this day still plagues me when I catch a fish. Alf’s shadow crossed us both. “Strike a light, boy,” he said. “My people, we’re saltwater people y’know; we’re big canoe people and we bin fishin’ for t’ousands of years in Hustralia and we’d never b’lieve to ketch a fish ’ere. No fear we wouldn’t.”

I forgot that it was one of my brown heroes who’d told me that barramundi bite best where saltwater met fresh, and I forgot that Alf came from an island on the other side of the country – and I forgot about my row with Dad. I also remembered I was actually worth something as a human being.

A big saltie croc cruised alongside the Lass, glowering at me for the loss of a free meal, but I ignored the old bugger. I could once again handle anything life threw at me.*

*This last paragraph may or may not be true, though there’s every chance that it could be. But the rest of the story is.

The sheep from Stony Creek

An opportunity not to be missed, as the real-estate agents say. A mate had offered Bev and me, free, seven cast-for-age ewes. We had no sheep on the place that we rented in return for a bit of work, and Bev reckoned that even old canner mutton would be a welcome break from the underground variety, so we jumped at the chance. But had we known what turning those sheep into Irish stew was to involve, we would have stuck with the bunnies.

We were in town on our fortnightly shopping trip the day the ewes arrived. Bill, the generous mate, had driven past us on the way home. He waved, but didn’t stop for a yarn; the reason for this breach of country etiquette becoming apparent when we arrived at the house. Pinned to the back door was a cryptic note: ‘Ewes in yards,’ it read. ‘I think they might be footrot carriers. Better kill before the autumn break.’ There’s always a catch somewhere.

We had checked the old yards some days before and in our opinion they were almost good enough to hold anything short of a Kimberley bullock – but we’d not reckoned on the athletic prowess of sheep from Stony Creek. Footrot may have condemned them, but age had wearied them not a jot. On sighting us, those ewes went through the rails with a speed that would have won them the Upotipotpon Cup.

Six disappeared into the stand of black mallee growing on the hill, while number seven, displaying a fine streak of ovine perversity, cantered through the boundary fence and crossed the road. Without breaking stride she ducked under the sign advertising the neighbours’ footrot-free Border Leicester stud and crashed through the fence surrounding their bull paddock. I received only a mild shock as I clambered through in pursuit and, making a mental note to tell the neighbours that their electric fence needed checking, I set off after the ewe.

Now Walter was, under normal circumstances, a placid bull, the epitome of the Angus temperament, but the sight of a wild-eyed and desperate lunatic in pursuit of an equally wild-eyed sheep must have temporarily unhinged him. Around the paddock we raced; Walter in the lead, the sheep close behind, and me struggling in the rear. A sharp, jinking turn and the order of procession became me, Walter, and then the sheep. By sheer good luck I brought that ewe to ground before she joined the stud flock. Hauling her through the fence to where Bev waited with the wheelbarrow, I noted that the energiser was supplying full power to that section of the fence. One down, six to go.
Those six will long live in my memory as the wariest sheep it has ever been my misfortune to meet. The merest hint of a squeak from a door hinge; the slightest slither of a well-oiled rifle bolt, was enough to send them bolting into the mallee, where they would instantly dematerialise.
One died. A combination of old age and over-excitement I thought, but Bev was of the opinion that too much time spent in standing cockatoo had not allowed it time to eat. Five remaining. The anticipated meals of mutton had faded into the limbo of broken dreams. Those ewes had become a threat to our sanity; an affront to our dignity. The neighbours’ dog was no use. After seeing the sheep dematerialise for the tenth time, she was reduced to whimpering and hiding in wombat holes whenever she heard me call her name. At last, in desperation, we told the now contrite Bill, the bloke who’d visited the curse upon us and was fast losing his right to be called “mate”, to ask our mutual friend Sam to bring Black George to yard the sheep for us.
Black George was a legend in the district; his ferocity a household word. His sire and dam had been honest workers both; his grandparents were dogs of great wisdom and dignity, but somewhere, somehow, something had gone wrong. Throughout the district, it was darkly hinted at that Black George was a changeling, the spawn perhaps of some spectral thylacine. While yarding chooks and ducks he was the model of good manners; goannas and guinea-pigs were treated with the velvet paw; but show him even a photograph of a sheep and he became a ravening lunatic.
Those ewes recognised the enemy immediately. On sighting Black George, they headed for the mallee, the dog slavering and howling in pursuit. The Black George theory of working sheep had it that they must first be reduced to a catatonic state, and once this was accomplished he would stand over them drooling, tail thrashing in delight. Black George’s response to his owner’s hoarse yells was to attempt to run the sheep the twelve miles to Stony Creek, pioneering a new route as he went.

Exasperated, Sam collared Black George as he flashed past for the umpteenth time. Tucking the dog under one brawny arm, he headed off after the sheep himself, treating us to a practical demonstration of the wisdom inherent in the old adage, ‘It’s no use keeping a dog and barking yourself’. Sam did the running, Black George the barking – a fine example of cooperation between a man and his dog.
This novel approach to shepherding proved too much for the sheep. Totally demoralised, they launched themselves into the big dam, and seizing the opportunity to cool off, we plunged in after them. Black George did his best to help; using the nearest back as a springboard he lunged, snapping and snarling at the swimming ewes. Fortunately for us, the sheep were now totally confused and Bev and I hauled them one by one to dry land, Sam assisting by holding George under water where his snarls and yowls of rage raised a fountain of bubbles, no doubt sending yabbies and eels racing for cover.
Those ewes escaped us in the end, proving too tough even for the sausage machine. The neighbours’ dog was the sole beneficiary – to compensate her for the indignity she suffered we gave the mutton to her owners as dog tucker.
A friend visited that district recently and called into the pub, where he’d been told the story of the “Great Upotipotpon Muster”. It hadn’t grown much in the telling, he said. Why should it? Truth is indeed much stranger than fiction and a good yarn needs no embellishment.

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For those unfamiliar with Australian dialect – and sadly this now includes a growing number of Australians raised on a cultural diet of US TV – I’ve added this bit of a glossary.
Underground mutton: wild rabbit; Mallee: small, multi-trunked eucalypts of several species, some a major source of eucalyptus oil; Chook: a domestic hen, chicken; Standing cockatoo: when flocks of cockatoos are feeding on the ground, some remain perched on vantage points to sound the alarm when danger approaches; Thylacine: the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger, a dog-like carnivorous marsupial; Yabbie: one of several names for a medium-to-large, freshwater crayfish.